Barely a week goes by without some new move in the world of ad blocking. The digital ad industry is becoming increasingly concerned, and so it should be. A report released last month by Global Web Index revealed that 37 per cent of mobile users are already using some form of ad-blocking software, with a further 42 per cent considering using them. The same study also revealed that 37 per cent of mobile users claimed to have blocked ads on their mobile within the last month. Worldwide, almost 200m people have downloaded ad blocking software to date.
Publishers have so far been pretty patient with people looking at their sites with ad blockers installed. In the course of researching a longer piece on ad blocking for our latest print edition, I downloaded an ad blocker for my phone and was surprised to see that none of the sites I visited flagged up the fact that I was using an ad blocker, or invited me to switch it off if I wanted to continue enjoying the free, ad-funded content.
But it seems that this situation is now changing. Forbes is one of the publishers that has made it clear to its readers how it feels about the use of ad blockers. In the run up to Christmas, it started displaying a message to ad blocker users, inviting them to turn the blocker off if they wanted to consume the content. (That said, it didn’t do itself any favours by then serving up malware to some of the visitors who turned off their ad blocker.)
Other publishers now seem to be adopting a similar approach. Just last week, Wired explained its new approach to the 20 per cent of people who come to its site with an ad blocker installed. They will be given two choices: either add Wired.com to the ad blocker’s whitelist (turning the ad blocker off effectively). Or subscribe to a brand-new ad-free version of Wired.com for $1 a week.
In a note announcing the move, Wired said: “We know that you come to our site primarily to read our content, but it’s important to be clear that advertising is how we keep Wired going: paying the writers, editors, designers, engineers, and all the other staff that works so hard to create the stories you read and watch here.”
Meanwhile, the Independent, which last week announced the closure of its print edition, has also revealed that it will not allow ad blocker users to access the content on its site.
There are a few problems here for the digital publishing industry. The first is that it’s very easy for people to start using ad blocking software; it only takes a couple of clicks to download and install it. Web users have also been incentivised to do so by the way in which publishers have overloaded their digital properties with ads, so that pages take longer to load, and users sometimes feel their privacy is being invaded. Which is one reason why I don’t buy into the idea that if the ad industry makes the ads better or more engaging, the ad blockers will be persuaded to start accepting them again.
The bigger problem, however, is a conceptual one. For while most of us accept that TV programmes, newspapers and magazines need ads in order to stay in business, this same value exchange does not seem to be understood in the digital world, even by people you might think would know better.
Five years ago, Ars Technica, a technology news site for, in its own words, “alpha geeks, technologists and IT professionals” was seeing as many as 35 per cent of visitors to its site using ad blockers, so it put up a polite message asking the ad blockers to whitelist the site or pay to read an ad-free version, just as Wired has done five years on. The result: hardly anyone took any notice. Until Ken Fisher, the site’s founder, wrote a piece explaining the value exchange and how the ads fund the content. That caused the ad blocking rate to drop by 8 per cent. Not earth-shattering, but a vast improvement on simply asking people to turn their ad blockers off.
So perhaps if publishers want to turn the ad blocking tide, they need to explain to their readers why they carry ads in the first place and just what those ads pay for. I think also, they need a concerted effort. Because the fact is, for any given site that tells an ad block user they have to turn their ad blocker off to enjoy the content, there are another five or six sites the user can go to to get similar content for free, without the ads.
It’s a tough one for the industry to solve then, but it’s simply the reality of life on the web, where free content abounds and loyalty is in short supply. And when the alternative is going to the wall, publishers have no option but to find a solution.